Julie Roberts and Isabel Piedmont were active in the Monroe County Green Party long before the County Council vote on the Canterbury Apartments. They attended that May 2001 meeting in the Courthouse and became activists on the spot.
"As I was speaking, I got this crawling sensation on the back of my neck and thought, 'Well, this is what I need to do next,'" says Roberts, a middle school teacher in Owen County. "This is where the buck was supposed to stop, and it just went slipping through like a greased pig. I thought, 'This needs to stop.'"
On a 5-2 vote, the council granted tax breaks for the Indianapolis-based developer Herman & Associates to build apartments on a wooded plot of land alongside the Indiana 37 Bypass just north of Bloomfield Road. For months, citizen activists had occupied the site with a tree-sit. And they packed the Courthouse meeting room that dark Tuesday evening, only to be ignored.
The Herman vote was but the latest example of the now-institutionalized practice of elected public officials transferring taxpayer money to wealthy land-development interests. Piedmont witnessed the vote, as well, an experience she found just as transforming as Roberts did.
"They narrowly defined their roles as council members, and they did not think one iota outside the box," she says. "They seemed so cold and uncaring that it really made me want to do something, too."
Roberts is quick to acknowledge that she's no tree-sitter. She's an art teacher with impeccable taste who says her idea of roughing it is "staying in a hotel without a Jacuzzi." Her talents, she says, have other applications.
"I can talk and read and understand things, and I can get along with people who can't get along with each other," she says. Such aptitudes dovetailed perfectly with the Green Party that Roberts and Piedmont had aligned themselves with pre-Herman. It was one place where those who seek to change the system from within had gravitated, people like Peter and Heather Drake, who had long advised that the job of a political party is to run people for office. "We're the electoral arm of the movement," Roberts says.
After the Canterbury vote, Roberts and Piedmont ratcheted up their political activities. Roberts hit County Council meetings each month; Piedmont followed suit at the City Council. Roberts declared her candidacy for the District 2 council seat on this November's ballot. Piedmont says she's getting ready for next year's City Council elections.
"As soon as this election's over," she says, "we start working on next year."
The deeper they got into the way local government works, the more appalled Roberts and Piedmont became.
They learned that the Monroe County Jail is operating at nearly double its capacity but is 18 correctional officers short. They learned that the county's emergency dispatch service is so understaffed that dispatchers must cut off 911 callers.
They discovered that the Bloomington Hospital Ambulance Service is in danger of disappearing in 2005 without additional county government support. They discovered that many county employees do not earn a living wage in return for their work.
In short, they found that county government is abdicating its responsibilities to provide vital public services because the major party candidates will not face up to the need for a tax increase.
"They assume people are too self-absorbed or just too stupid to grasp the issues and understand why we need a tax increase," Roberts says.
The issues are complex, Roberts acknowledges, but they have direct human impacts that citizens do understand. She's learned that from talking to county residents face to face throughout her campaign.
"Anytime I've spoken to anyone who has had friends in jail, they are on it," she says. "They are unhappy with the way people are treated up there. They are angry."
Roberts has the highest praise for the correctional staff that to date has avoided catastrophe. "It's a miracle that there haven't been any really nasty incidents," she says.
Ambulance services are commonly provided as a county government service in Indiana, Roberts says. In neighboring Owen County, taxpayers pay $13 a person a year for ambulance service. Bloomington Hospital pays the lion's share in Monroe County, where taxpayers ante up only 98 cents apiece.
Citizens understand that, she says. And they are quick studies on the emergency dispatch crisis. "They're shocked to learn that there's no one to stay on the line with you until the ambulance arrives," she says.
Roberts gives the public more credit than the current crop of elected officials do. She proposes raising the County Option Income Tax (COIT) to address these issues and give the lowest paid county workers raises. The increase would amount to ¼ of a penny per every $100 of taxable income, or about $4 a month per taxpayer.
"We've got to have that COIT," she says.
County Democrats - Business and Green Donkey alike - recruited Roberts to run for office as a D. She simply wasn't persuaded by their arguments.
"They kept saying it was about winning and being able to serve," she says. "It's not about winning. It's about how you play the game. It really is. It's about forcing debate about the real issues."
Both Piedmont and Roberts point out that two Democrats on the County Council voted to give Herman & Associates their tax breaks. And last year, a City Council dominated 7-2 by Democrats voted 6-3 against a last-ditch resolution offered by Andy Ruff to meekly ask the BEDC to broaden its membership to become more reflective of the community.
"Not even that wimpy resolution could pass a Democratic majority," says Piedmont, who's lost faith in the Democrats. "They're a party without any ideology. They've totally abandoned what liberal principles they may at one time have had. It's not a party based on principle."
The Greens, who are also running Jeff Melton in the Ninth District Congressional race, do not accept campaign contributions from businesses and corporations. It's a position they take on principle and believe other parties should adopt as well, for the health of our democratic process.
"It's all based on winning, and to do that you have to get money, and to do that you have to cater to special interests and corporations and the rich," Piedmont says. "We see that nationally as well as locally. It really disgusts me that our democracy has been so corrupted by money."
Roberts says her campaign will focus on face-to-face interaction with voters, raising her issues with them one-on-one. In fact, it isn't about winning with her, as she has no illusions about that. It is about playing the game.
"That is our philosophy," she says. "It has to be person-to-person, door-to-door. … We figured if we could get on the ballot this time and force people to talk about our issues, then we would have done something really important. And we've done that already."
The passion that Roberts and Piedmont bring to their political activism is in part a product of their being full-fledged Bloomington natives, multigenerational, in Roberts' case. That, they agree, gives them a deep emotional attachment to the community, making the rampant development of green space a little more personal to them.
"You drive around and see all the development, all the houses that look the same, all the big box stores," Piedmont says, "It really is heartbreaking."
Roberts says stopping such urban sprawl by "any legal means available" should be a priority for county council members and all elected officials. The council's "ridiculous tax abatement for the Canterbury Apartments" was a missed opportunity. "That was a legal means that wasn't exercised," she says.
In the final analysis, Roberts says she had no choice but to join the Green Party.
"I'm a Green," she says. "I signed the Green Party's 10 key values. I'm Green to the marrow of my bones."